Helen Fellows 2017-2018

Current Fellows

Camera Ford

Head shot of 2017-2018 Helen Fellow Camera Ford.

Camera Ford is a native New Yorker and graduate of Brown University with a Bachelor’s degree in geology. Her childhood fascination with volcanos and dinosaurs eventually led to an interest in Earth and environmental sciences. During her time at Brown, Camera explored research in both volcanology and land management/conservation. Camera was first exposed to coding in college, and her current interests are at the intersection of programming, earth science, and social justice. She is excited to apply her skills to an ecology and conservation project at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation this year. Camera enjoys sparking an interest in science and technology in students who might not normally have gravitated towards STEM fields. She believes that programming and earth science are both vital ways to understand and interact with the world around us, and looks forward to furthering those aims during her time at AMNH. She also loves to travel, read, and learn languages.

Community members in the villages of Biche, Vavanga, West Parara, and Zaira in the New Georgia Group of the Solomon Islands rely heavily on farming for both sustenance and income. Over the last few years, these communities have seen a sharp increase in devastating crop destruction caused by a local garden pest, Herpetogramma hipponalis. Working with Dr. Mary Blair and Ned Horning, Camera will build a mechanistic model in R that simulates the population of H. hipponalis in the garden plots based on different environmental scenarios. The model will use environmental and survey data collected from the island communities as inputs in an effort to determine what environmental factors are contributing to the increase in H. hipponalis populations in the community garden plots.


Betsy Hernandez

Head shot of 2017-2018 Helen Fellow Betsy Hernandez.

Betsy is a first generation Dominican-American who has had a non-traditional career trajectory. Betsy has loved science and math since childhood, but she and her parents were unaware of the vast careers in STEM, and so she initially pursued a path in medicine at the City College of New York of the City University of New York (CUNY). Once there, she learned about research and other nonmedical careers in science. She later transferred to Hunter College CUNY and obtained a bachelor's in Physics and Mathematics. While at Hunter College, Betsy began her astronomy research through the AstroCom NYC Fellowship, which is affiliated with CUNY schools and the American Museum of Natural History. Her other astronomy research experiences were through GRAD MAP at the University of Maryland in College Park and through the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) at Space Telescope Science Institute where her research focused on galaxies. During her year as a Helen Fellow she will mentor youth, and perform a theoretical research project analyzing galaxies and black holes. Afterwards, she will continue with her education through the two-year Princeton Post Baccalaureate program. Betsy then hopes go on to graduate school and ultimately become a professor. Additional interests include assisting in astronomy outreach events like stargazing, and non-STEM work like cake decorating and Latin dancing, specifically, dancing to merengue, bachata, salsa, and cha-cha.

Betsy is working with Dr. Mordecai Mac-Low, Dr. K.E. Saavik Ford, Dr. Barry McKernan, Dr. Jillian Bellovary, Dr. Nate Leigh and Dr. Wlad Lyra on a theoretical research project to examine if stellar black hole mergers can occur in active galactic nuclei (AGN). If so, this could explain LIGO observations of black hole mergers. She will use models in Pencil Code to simulate orbiting stellar black holes in AGN disks on her laptop and the Cosmo parallel cluster. Betsy will simulate 2D models and ultimately create 3D models of AGN disks and orbiters. In the Pencil simulation, she will be able to modify parameters of the run including the density of the AGN disk, the number of orbiters, mass of the orbiters, the radius and direction of the orbits with respect to the disk, and the thermodynamics of the disk. She will use Python to analyze and visualize the output from the Pencil simulation, with a focus on quantifying the torques generated by the disk on the orbiting black holes for use by Amy Secunda, another Helen Fellow. The visualization components include graphs and movies. The research goals are to understand how orbiters change the dynamics of the AGN disk and how the torques acting on the orbiter change when the parameters are modified, in order to examine if realistic AGN environments can produce the black hole masses and merger rates detected by LIGO.


Ellianna Schwab

Head shot of 2017-2018 Helen Fellow Ellianna Schwab.

After working for the better part of a decade as a graphic designer, Ellianna Schwab moved to New York City to attend CUNY - City College. She graduated with a B.S. in Theoretical Physics earlier this year. Curious about most anything physics, Ellianna has combined her two passions, observational astronomy and electromagnetic theory, in her undergraduate research on magnetic fields in low-mass stars at the American Museum of Natural History. She has been a visiting researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory where she joined in the search for gravitational wave signatures in the light from precisely timed millisecond pulsars. She is excited to continue her astrophysics research as a Helen Fellow this year, and is looking forward to sharing her love of astronomy and computational methods with her Brown Scholars interns. In her free time, Ellianna is an avid hiker and stargazer. She also enjoys swimming and visiting the penguins in Central Park. Following the Helen Fellowship, she will be attending graduate school at UC Berkeley as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow.

Ellianna works with Dr. Jacqueline Faherty to investigate the impact of a host star’s magnetic activity on any exoplanets orbiting it, particularly in low-mass star (< 0.3 solar masses) planetary systems. More than 70% of the stars in the solar neighborhood are low-mass stars. Many of the recent detections of earth-like planets have been found around these small stars, and understanding the characteristics of their magnetic fields is essential to calculating the habitability of their orbiting planets. In addition to analyzing the general characteristics of magnetic fields in low-mass stars through multiwavelength investigations, Ellianna is using quantum mechanical signatures in their stellar spectra to calculate the finer magnetic field architecture. This work will contribute to the greater discussion of habitability around low-mass stars and help inform our understanding of the long-term evolution of these systems.


Amy Secunda

Head shot of 2017-2018 Helen Fellow Amy Secunda.

After ten years as a professional actor, Amy Secunda returned to school at Columbia University to study astrophysics. There under the mentorship of Professor Kathryn Johnston and Dr. Robyn Sanderson she studied the distant Milky Way stellar halo, using simulations to show how current and upcoming observations can be used to constrain the shape and extent of the Milky Way's dark matter halo. Using the computational astrophysics skills she gained in this work, she is now studying the growth of intermediate mass black holes in active galactive nucleus disks under the mentorship of Dr. Mordecai Mac-Low as a Helen Fellow. She is also in the process of applying to astrophysics Ph.D. programs where she will continue to do computation astrophysics research.

The 2017 Nobel Prize winning detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has opened a new window to observing the universe, and has therefore observed new and mysterious phenomena. The formation of the black hole binaries LIGO has detected are as of yet unexplained by theoretical astrophysics. One possible solution could be that they form in migration traps in active galactic nucleus (AGN) disks. Making an analogy from the well-studied formation of planets in protoplanetary disks to the new field of formation of binary black holes in AGN disks, we aim to make the necessary adaptations from the protoplanetary case to the AGN disk to model how binary black holes form, in order to better understand and make predictions for LIGO observations.


Alexandra Walling

Head shot of 2017-2018 Helen Fellow Alexandra Walling.

Most recently from California, Alexandra Walling is excited to live and work in New York City for the first time. She spent three years at St John’s College, Annapolis, studying philosophy, language, and the history of math and science, before taking time off to work and explore her interests in science. She received a B.S. in Biology from California State University at Monterey Bay, where she researched the role of phage in gain or loss of photosynthetic function in marine bacteria with Dr. Arlene Haffa. Since graduating she’s worked as a Genetics TA and a lab technician at Cal State Monterey Bay, before coming to the American Museum of Natural History to pursue bioinformatics research into the viruses of green algae with Dr. Eunsoo Kim.

In her current research with Dr. Eunsoo Kim, Alexandra Walling is using bioinformatics approaches to tease out a new viral genome from the genome assembly of the green algae Cymbomonas tetramitiformis. The project seeks first to determine whether viral genes present in the C tetramitiformis genome assembly are present as a result of horizontal gene transfer or due to the presence of viral particles in cell culture at the time of sequencing. Second, the project aims to assemble and annotate a genome for a previously-unknown virus of green algae. The project is entirely computational, and will be carried out using command-line applications, Python, R, and software packages for genome assembly such as MitoBim or Geneious.



Past Fellows

Past Helen Fellows alumni include: